Learning New Tricks

Hi Friends,

Last week I got the bug to paint using natural earth pigments. This comes up for me from time to time, but I usually set it aside because my experiments with natural pigments haven’t been all that successful. I haven’t had enough experience to know how to use them well. No time like the present to learn!

The earth pigments that I use are mostly different colors of dirt from around the world. Yellow and orange ochres, burnt sienna, raw umber, red iron oxide. Black is made from charred bones, and I also use graphite gray and titanium white.

Cassandra Tondro natural pigments

I started with two colors poured over scrunched up canvas to create an interesting background. The look I was going for was “cave painting.” I used burnt sienna and graphite, and mixed the powdered pigments in diluted soy milk to bind them to the raw cotton canvas.

It turned out pretty good, and I was happy with the result. When using earth pigments, you have to adjust your eye to a much more subdued palette. These aren’t the bright synthetic colors we’re used to seeing.

Cassandra Tondro natural pigments

I wanted to add some marks. For this I needed to mix up gum arabic so the pigments would stay suspended in solution. I bought powdered gum arabic and mixed it into liquid form using warm water. It was tricky to get the gum arabic to dissolve. I had to throw it into a blender to remove the lumps and get  a smooth solution.

Next I rolled white over the uneven surface, and then black. I didn’t let them dry between the layers, so I ended up with gray.

Cassandra Tondro natural pigments

Not a good look! I decided to use the back side of the canvas instead and start over.

Cassandra Tondro natural pigments

I added marks, did some rolling with black and added splatters of a very deep iron red. It was looking pretty good, until I stretched it and sprayed it with water to tighten the canvas. The water caused some of the colors to bleed and blur.

Cassandra Tondro natural pigments

Oh well. I learned a few things, anyway. 1. Don’t dilute gum arabic with additional water — it weakens the bond. 2. Use more pigment for a richer color. 3. Don’t spray the canvas with water.

​Maybe I can continue to add to this piece and bring it around to something that looks better. We’ll see!

Where’s your learning curve these days? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts. You can share them with us in the comments section below.

With love and appreciation,


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